Narratives of a pandemic: what can we learn from the virus?

, by Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, Translated by Niamh Perry

Narratives of a pandemic: what can we learn from the virus?
Photo: Unsplash / Robert Metz

In difficult times, it is important to be able to report on the positive. A drastic decline in pollution can now be seen everywhere. NASA’s images are fascinating, showing a significant drop in nitrogen oxides over China. It is wonderful to see how mother nature is breathing a sigh of relief, as the water in the canals of Venice flows clear and dolphins swim in disused ports around the world. However, the idea that the current measures to contain the virus can also save the planet, is a dangerous one. This a guest article, written by Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg, for our German sister publication Treffpunkt.

In times of great upheaval, it is always the way in which we interpret a situation that decides how we proceed. Conservative forces and climate sceptics now have a clear template for their storytelling, which goes something like this: “Corona has done what no one could! Now here they are, the drastic measures for climate protection – and they proclaim: the shutdown of all production, no parties, no events, no travel, complete isolation - and even curfews! Is this the eco-dictatorship that is supposed to save us? What a depressing, lonely and hostile attitude towards human life!”

Another story, if not quite as exaggerated and yet almost equally as dangerous, is that a restructuring of priorities is needed. Green deals, eco-friendly investments, sustainability – all water under the bridge. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there have been great efforts to salvage our economies. The environmental conundrum is a luxury that can no longer be addressed. Moreover, it has long been proven that overwhelming progress has been made, that climate targets have almost been met, and that we have already done our part.

The global financial crisis of 2008 should have taught us otherwise. During the recession, global CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production fell by 1.4 per cent. Helen Mountford of the World Resource Institute warns, however, that after a recession, a boost in the economy usually causes a sharp increase in emissions. After the financial crisis, for example, emissions rose by almost six per cent. This more than overcompensates for this supposed mitigation. In many ways, the financial crisis story is that of missed opportunities – this would also have been a moment to clear up the state of affairs in the financial world, and to make it more resilient.

Coronavirus as an example of “change by disaster”

Fridays for Future hit the nail on the head with the phrase “change by disaster or change by design”, the coronavirus pandemic being an excellent example of the former. Governments have been overwhelmed and a crisis must now be resolved at full speed. Democracy is being neglected because there is so little time – and in the end, what is there to discuss? After all, it’s a matter of life and death.

Environmental pollution is also a dramatic yet creeping phenomenon and, therefore, a bad agenda-setter. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that seven million people worldwide die every year as a result of poor air quality. The literature on agenda-setting and risk is clear: sudden, shocking events are assessed more dramatically and quickly lead both the media and the political agenda. It is not only pragmatism and the questioning of environmental protection that is now spreading throughout the political arena. One really starts to shudder when right-wing extremists continue to stir up panic, because after all – thanks to coronavirus – it is a dream for them: closing borders and retreating back to the nation state.

In fact, almost instinctively, member states first took the reins alone, leaving the EU seemingly out of the picture. In the face of a completely new situation and threat, general uncertainty is spreading, people are in shock. They are also looking for support, direction and leadership – in short, fertile ground for right-wing extremism. In Hungary, Victor Orban seized the opportunity and now rules by decree based on emergency laws. In short, he no longer needs the approval of parliament, thus undermining democracy.

An exercise in planetary and systematic thinking

Though there has been a ‘withdrawal’ into nation states, a global threat – a pandemic – requires global cooperation. It is an exercise in planetary thinking for further crises to come. Suddenly, humanity is connected in a strange way. We are all in the same boat. Everywhere, researchers are working feverishly to develop faster tests and in the hope of coming up with a vaccine. The authorities are in contact with each other to trace chains of infection, debate different strategies and learn from each other. The exchange of medical material, the sharing of research results and static data, and cross-border offerings of emergency beds – these are all examples of cooperation that go far beyond what we are used to, namely purely economic interests. The common enemy that united people in science fiction films is here, albeit invisibly - and not in the form of an alien, but a virus.

If planetary thinking - the sharing of the solutions we desperately need to fight climate change and pollution - there is so much to be gained. Environmental protection is not a luxury problem for which, after coronavirus, we have neither the nerve nor the means to tackle. An urgent appeal should be made here not to instrumentalise the virus for social and ecological regression. We would pay for this dearly with a “change by disaster”. Perhaps it would help to break down the fight against climate change and the worldwide loss of biodiversity to a utilitarian slogan: preserve what sustains you. Make resilient today what you will need to live tomorrow: your food security, your economy, your social environment and your health system. Resilience is a concept which is contrary to our previous pursuit of maximisation. A system that is always at the limit of its capacity is not resilient. Figuratively speaking, we must not seek to squeeze the lemon down to the last drop.

Change by design: what can we actually learn from the pandemic?

The shortcomings of our way of life are now mercilessly exposed and thrown into the spotlight: understaffed hospitals and nursing clinics and underpaid staff under enormous pressure. Nursing professions have always been systemically important, but now everyone can see it. There is also a worry over a lack of harvesters, because seasonal workers, who would otherwise spend hours reaping asparagus and picking strawberries in poor conditions, might not be able to cross the border. What is essential? What is systemically important? What do we really need? All of these questions are on the table and are actually the starting point for fruitful, positive discussion, for optimism and – yes, I dare say it – for a better world. The eternally dreary scenario of the ‘end of the world’ and the ‘saving what can be saved’ must be countered. Bellicose analogies flutter through the media at an almost inflationary rate, as numerous politicians have stated: this is war. And the destruction will be massive. There is even talk of an ‘Hour Zero’ after the pandemic. It will take a lot of money to rebuild. And at the same time, there is a fear – almost an epiphany – that it will be impossible to rebuild everything exactly as it was before.

But even more important to me is the question: do we really want to rebuild everything in the same way? Let us seize the opportunity for a more social, greener and fairer change. Let us invest in those areas that ‘produce’ something that is infinitely valuable – the common good! Let us preserve what preserves us. And let us define together what that is: work and jobs that make sense and are well paid, and compatible with families; a resilient agricultural sector that provide local food security; alternative mobility models, such as the expansion of night trains as an alternative to flying within Europe; and much more.

Many clever minds are already having thoughts on these issues. And everyone seems to be concerned with one question: is it too early for these thoughts? Is it irresponsible to imagine a beautiful new ‘afterlife’ when the crisis is not yet over and is still devouring an awful lot of lives in countries that are less well-positioned? How much energy and thought would be better spent fighting the current situation? I can’t answer that. All I know is that we have to be careful and analyse who is actually offering interpretations of the crisis now and what the consequences of these might be after. And I hope that the thought of an ‘after’ can also give a lot of energy. I am committed to ensuring that solidarity continues, because one thing is certain, whether it’s climate change or coronavirus, we only have one planet, and we live on it together.

Your comments

Warning, your message will only be displayed after it has been checked and approved.

Who are you?

To show your avatar with your message, register it first on (free et painless) and don’t forget to indicate your Email addresse here.

Enter your comment here

This form accepts SPIP shortcuts {{bold}} {italic} -*list [text->url] <quote> <code> and HTML code <q> <del> <ins>. To create paragraphs, just leave empty lines.

Follow the comments: RSS 2.0 | Atom